- Scientific Fraud
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- Table of Contents - October 13, | The New York Review of Books
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The case of John Long is illustrative. He was a rising star in a big hospital, doing big things. And then he had the whistle blown on him. For a long time, however, his position saved him. Another example of this elitism is the case of Noguchi at the Rockerfeller Institute, whose friendship with Simon Flexner seemed to make him immune to criticism.
The mentor-professor relationship is shown to be a tricky one which is frequently abused. Though Broad and Wade do not mention it in their book, the student can frequently benefit enormously by allowing his mentor to steal his ideas. He was director of the laboratory in which the work was done. The question: What are the rights and responsibilities of the administrator of a large scientific project? The master-apprentice relationship seems to be central to the frauds of Summerlin, Guillis, and John Darsee. These men got away with fraud as long as they did because of their contacts with Big Name scientists.
Broad and Wade do not mention that in the Summerlin affair, his mentor at Sloan-Kettering was among the accusers. To tie up this section, the authors discuss the Soman-Filig affair. This was the problem with Lysenko and what passed for Russian agronomy under his years in power.
Strangely enough, the authors include the Paul Kammerer case here. Clearly, this is not an attack on psychologists. Cyril Burt is handled in the same way, as exemplifying a loss of objectivity. Scholars do not always read the scientific literature carefully. Science is not a perfectly objective process. Dogma and prejudice, when suitably garbed, creep into science just as easily as into any other human enterprise, and maybe more easily since their entry is unexpected.
Burt, with the mere appearance of being a scientist, worked his way to the top of the academic ladder, to a position of power and influence in both science and the world beyond. He used the scientific method as a purely rhetorical tool to force the acceptance of his own dogmatic ideas. Against such weapons, the scientific community that harbored him was defenseless.
I like this analogy: just as Adam Smith had economics ultimately operated by an Invisible Hand, so would this describe the ideological view of science as operating with an Invisible Boot, which is supposed to kick out the rascals and the rotten apples along with their evil data. The last pages of the book provide a very brief picture of cheating in science by listing 34 cases which the authors know about and report on in the text of the book. Originally published on my blog here in November Scientists have generally portrayed themselves as they have perceived themselves: as objective searchers after truth.
This is itself not entirely the way things are even at the best of times, and on reflection it could hardly be the case. Scientists are human too; the ideas on which they work are the products of human minds; and total objectivity can only be an ideal to aspire to. It is the dichotomy between the ideal and the reality which is Originally published on my blog here in November It is the dichotomy between the ideal and the reality which is the subject of this book - the whole spectrum of deceit in science, ranging from outright fraud to massaging of results to bolster a conclusion to subconscious self-deception.
Topics touched on also include the relationships between the different people involved in research - such as senior and junior researchers, or co-authors of papers. The authors set out to determine what it is about the then current scientific culture which encourages fraud and its cover up, and they are particularly interested in the ways that process supposed to act as checks and balances peer review of grant applications, refereeing of papers, and replication of results have been corrupted. This is however balanced by accounts of relatively minor fraud by some of the greatest names in science in previous centuries - men like Galileo, Newton and Mendel reporting experimental results unbelievably close to the predictions of their theories.
The verdict of the historians of science seems to be that this is OK, provided that the theory turns out to be correct. I'm not sure that the selection of the professionalisation of science as a major cause of fraud is entirely correct. One of the other interesting things that comes out of reading Betrayers of the Truth is that almost all the recent examples discussed come from the biological sciences, particularly medicine. This is something which the authors put down to the higher mathematics content in physics and chemistry.
The twentieth century expansion of science as a whole is disproportionately centred on biology, and in medical research in particular are combined high pressure to produce results and massive rewards both in money and status potentially available, and considerable difficulty in designing, carrying out and correctly interpreting experiments. This is something which seems to me to be a basic part of the reason behind modern fraud, and it makes it especially tragic when flawed experiments can be used as the basis for new treatments.
It is now twenty years since the publication of Betrayers of the Truth; have things changed? I can't see that deliberate fraud and self deception will have gone away. One of the most famous episodes in science in the last few years falls pretty definitely into the latter category, for example - the story of cold fusion.
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That shares many features with cases described here especially that of N-rays to which it has frequently been compared. One particular common feature is the attitude of the authorities involved, with the attempts of the university to play things up to attract grant money and the use of rhetoric rather than logic to argue the merits of the case. These are aspects that one would expect to have changed, as high profile cases of error would argue caution, but this does not seem to have happened.
Many scientists manage to go through their entire careers without coming across a case of fraud, though I suspect that most would harbour suspicion that some massaging of results has gone on at some point. One of the major surprises to me in this book is the consistent attitude of senior scientists that fraud hardly ever happens; that it is only the sick of mind who attempt it; and that accusations of fraud are best covered up.
This last is a regrettable consequence of the generally positive fact that scientists see themselves as a community. There was an article in Physics Today Investigation Finds that One Lucent Physicist Engaged in Scientific Misconduct in November, which showed that lessons still hadn't been learnt - despite Broad and Wade bringing this up repeatedly twenty years ago, the investigating committee still said that the responsibilities of co-authors to check for fraud were not clear.
Table of Contents - October 13, | The New York Review of Books
One of the most interesting points that Broad and Wade make is that attempting to understand how science works by discussing what ideal science would be like, as philosophers and scientists tend to do, is likely to lead to distortion of the truth and, in particular, to the reluctance to accept the existence of fraud that seems to still be rife. They would argue that the pathology of the scientific culture should be considered as well as its ideals; knowledge of how things can go wrong can help bring understanding of the healthy system.
There is something in this, but it can be equally misleading to go too far the other way, basing understanding of the healthy on examination of the sick; this was a problem with the early development of psychiatry. Betrayers of the Truth is a thought provoking and frequently shocking read, clearly written, in a journalistic style admirably appropriate to the topic. Mar 05, James Sheaves rated it liked it Shelves: science , pseudoscience.
Between this, Bad Blood , and the film Fyre , I've been on something of a fraud kick recently. The sort of person who commits an audacious fraud of the type contained in those works emerges as something of a type: ambitious, persuasive, egotistical, and of course pathologically deceptive.
But there are also many cases presented in this book of less ambitious frauds committed by people caught up in the pressures of scientific publishing; the sort of fraud I could imagine myself succumbing to under Between this, Bad Blood , and the film Fyre , I've been on something of a fraud kick recently.
But there are also many cases presented in this book of less ambitious frauds committed by people caught up in the pressures of scientific publishing; the sort of fraud I could imagine myself succumbing to under the same circumstances I recall a few research projects from my undergraduate days where, with a deadline looming, I may have filled in some of the gaps in my data collection. But that's quite enough about my failings! Broad and Wade's picture of science's failings seems as relevant as ever, given the ongoing replication crisis, and many of the critiques they make hold up.